Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Limits of Human Intelligence

I've been giving some thought lately to human intelligence and to what its limits might be. I have touched on this in the past but my thinking on this subject has been developing. I find myself coming back to this topic often because it is a quintessential aspect of accelerating technological progress.

For most of human history culture has been evolving very slowly so that the memes required to operate in that culture could easily be passed from generation to generation. And from generation to generation the memes changed very slowly in concordance with the cultural evolution. This has remained true all the way up to the last few decades. The last half a century has marked the first time that from one generation to the next there has been substantial changes in the memes required to function in society. This trend is speeding up in correspondence with the technological hyperbolic curve. What this means is that the transmission of memes from generation to generation must be replaced (is being replaced) by continuous memetic evolution within a single generation. No longer is it good enough to just receive an education and be done with it as it was in past centuries. Only the most intelligent are succeeding at this game presently. Just look at the demographics for your average Internet user or blog reader. The majority of those on line are either under thirty or probably of above average intelligence. What, I ask, are the ramifications of this trend?

In answering this question let's begin with the 'brain is the hardware mind is the software' analogy (which I find very helpful). Physically our brains have been mostly the same since the rise of homo sapiens somewhere around 2.5 million years ago. One reason human brains haven't gotten any larger is because the female birth canal is already as large as it can be with out seriously inhibiting the ability of bipedal locomotion. This has not hindered the advance of intelligence however. This is because the human brain already has far more raw computational power than is being effectively used. No matter how powerful a computer is it can only be as powerful as its programming allows. For an example imagine running a simple tic-tac-to program on one of the blue-gene super computers. It might play tic-tac-to really well but it won't be able to do anything else. Well this is analogous to what kind of memes are programming a human brain. If the only program in the brain is for hunting and gathering etc. it won't be putting a man on the moon any time soon. Up until recently the human cultural memeplex/mental program as been relatively simple and hardly using any of the potential intelligence of the human brain.

So the question I ask is just how plastic is the human brain? In other words what is the limit of how powerful a program (memeplex) the human brain can run before it bogs down? Or, to rephrase the question yet one more time, how far can human culture evolve without the human brain becoming incapacitated by the complexity of its own self-created environment?

I don't have an answer to this question but I suspect that as we get closer to the singularity we will approach what someone else has referred to as a 'memetic singularity'. As I understand it this would be a point at which a memetic entropy would be achieved. In other words one memeplex would come to dominate a global culture. This could only happen if the interconnectivity of human minds reached a point that transcends the current limitations of language via some future technology (no doubt a descendant of the current web). As I see it this will take place shortly before the singularity and will be the final impetus toward the singularity. At this 'memetic singularity' I speculate that we will be pushing the computational limits of biological human brains. However, by this stage of technological and memetic evolution the very structure of the network that forms this interconnectivity will be mediated by powerful tools of artificial intelligence that are directly linked to our minds in ways that structurally modify our brains.

I can only begin to imagine what the ramifications of this sort of scenario might be or what it would mean to be an 'individual' in this sort of state. One thing is clear however, at that point the total of our collective, machine enhanced and mediated, intelligence will be far great than the sum of its parts.

If any of my readers have any other opinions or insights on this topic I would love to hear them.


I believe that you are fundamentally correct in your assertion that the human brain has not yet reached the limits of it's ability to handle more complex software.

Part of what I am internally exploring on my blog is whether or not the human brain can natively run the rational agent OS (RAOS), rather than the evolved kludge OS (EKOS) which we are currently born with and apparently tied to. In the past few weeks on the SL4 mailing list I read a post which, before I read it, I was not even close to appreciating, but which, after reading it, seemed intuitively obvious. The poster pointed out that the merger of humans and technology has already begun, and actually started in the early 1900's with the initial advent of the computer, and possibly before that with the invention of writing. They posited that, if you walk up to me, and I am holding a calculator, then my abilities, combined with those of the calculator, make me superhuman from your persepctive. I am capable of all normal human functions, all normal calculator function, and all combined human-calculator functions including plotting a graph, calculating logs, balancing a checkbook, etc. . .

It has long been proposed that any PHD. student with even a non-networked computer could max out any I.Q. test ever written, and I see no reason why this should not be so.

So I do not believe that we will see the sudden precipice of the memetic-singularity. Instead I believe that we will continue becoming more and more inextricably tied to our technology. Initially in the form of more portable and compact devices, then as wearable or embedded devices, and finally as neural links to data and processing stores online. This is really the only way to adjust to the incredible pace of the memetic changes which will be taking place in the coming decade.

By Blogger Ian Stuart, at 30/11/05 13:55  

I completely agree that the merger with machines has already begun. As you said I think this is obvious. But, as you alluded to, even writing is a weak form of memeroy enhancement and information storage and what it does is enable memes to be stored and transmitted. This is the invention which has made cultural evolution possible to begin with. All subsequent infotech inventions simply build on this invention. That is they allow more information to be stored, processed, and disseminated. The 'memetic singularity' idea I got off a Kurzweil AI discussion. What I meant by this was not that there would be a'sudden precipice' but simply that as the human-machine interface exponetially increases it will lead to the more and more rapid dissemination of ideas (memes)or(programming)which will lead to a point where all memes are maximaly dispersed and shared - albeit at an exponential rate that does end in spike.
Also, I like how you put it with (RAOS) and (EKOS). That is an excellent way of describing this conflict. This is partially what I was trying to get at with the talk about enlightenment. One way of saying it, for instance, is that perpetual peace will be accomplished once the RAOS memeplex (enlightenment) has been maximaly disseminated. Well thanks for the thoughts Ian, and everyone make sure you check out Ian's new blog on rationality, AI, singularity, etc.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 30/11/05 14:34  

Thanks for the endorsement. My latest post Rationalizing Logical Positivism (or "Check Out My Superior Driving Skills") is in response to your comments.
I am anxious to get your feedback.

By Blogger Ian Stuart, at 30/11/05 14:57  

The earlier you can work with a child, the better, for enriching the environment and maximizing potential. Most of the mind will be hard-wired in terms of possible states of mind. Different "memes" and other environmental stimuli may activate innate potential states. Introducing entirely new mental potentials to an adult brain (like new computer software) is problematic. More likely is the possibility of activating latent states.

You know from the "wild child" stories that language has to be activated within a certain time window. The same is probably true for math and music, at higher skill levels. Any child who has read/listened to multiple stories, and watched television or cinema, has a lot of latent behaviours that can be activated by the right situations or memes.

By Blogger al fin, at 1/12/05 15:00  

I somewhat disagree... have you ever heard the saying the human condition remains the same in a world that changes?

Plato and Aristotle were master mathematicians, philosophers, and scientific (especially Aristotle); and to the point where few who followed were able to even write as intelligently about the subjects of human knowledge. They lived over 2,500 years ago.

I don't think (barring the possibility of "intelligent design" through some genetic manipulation or rewiring of the brain) that humans will evolve far greater cognitive abilities (at least in the near future). I think this is so because as student of evolution, I know that it's really important to realize that evolution doesn't 'take' us, or any organism, anywhere...
Evolution is the process of preserving some changes because they are better suited to a changing environment. It usually ends with extinction, in fact.

Like all organisms on the planet, humans have selective pressures to thank for a great deal of their biology. Need to rip meat off of bones? Genes for strong teeth play a role. But when food becomes cooked and mushy? Those strong teeth are not needed, and eating habits eventually cause changes in jaw shape.

Mainly, evolution is in place to make sure that we have kids -- lots of 'em -- and that they are biologically equipped to survive in the world.

Deviations from the genetic norm face some long odds. Alternate forms of genes, called alleles, are spread on the basis of how many children with those genes survive to pass them along.

Unless a genetic change alters survivability to childbearing age, or increases chances of survival of those children, the allele is unlikely to become widespread.

Although humans have gone through dramatic physical changes in the past two million years or so, that does not mean we are due for the same level of metamorphosis in the future.

Advances in medicine, technology, and culture are relaxing some of the evolutionary rules, some researchers have reported. Rather than being a species that favors survival of the fittest, we have become one that allows for the survival of most, leading to sharp declines in infant mortality and once fatal diseases.

Also slowing drastic changes in evolution is the loss of individual, isolated clusters of people around the globe. No longer can small pockets of populations develop gene mutations, because, thanks to globalization, air travel, and rampant tourism, untouched villages are remarkably rare.

Some believe that there may be gene-level changes in terms of resistance to diseases -- potentially boding well for the population, since malaria and AIDS might yet be fought off. But in terms of physical shape ... well, this might be it, with some minor variations.

There will be a continued selection against larger teeth. But we as humans change awfully slowly in terms of biology.

Scientific ingeniuty is controversial, I mean just look at the recent debate over tinkering with sex determination.

There will be a continued selection against larger teeth. But we as humans change awfully slowly in terms of biology.

But there is no doubt that technology will have an effect on humankind in fundamental ways.

Technology actually interferes with evolutionary processes to some degree, in a way that does not bestow advantages to humans. For instance, our reliance on lights when it gets dark could reduce the ability to see well at night.

If you don't need to see at night because you have lights, why would your genes for being able to see at night be selected? Why would that get passed on to kids if they don't need it to survive?

But I don't feel that our innate cognitive abilities will change dramatically, again, at least in the near future barring scientific tampering with our genetic design (which is regarded throughout the scientific community as unethical)...

To reitterate, I agree with the state that the human condition remains the same in a world that doesn't. Recent rapid changes in technologies from generation to generation allow younger people to become adept at them - but that is because they grew up with it (such as internet for those under 30). Further, the average internet user would likely be higher than "typical" IQ because a.) the demographic is generally wealthier than those who do not (i.e. can't afford the internet). And IQ studies show that the wealthier a group is the higher their IQ will be as the highest correlation is education. This, to me, just means the brain is a muscle, and the more you use it, the better you will be able to apply it. There is no evidence that great changes in IQ (or cognitive ability) are passed down from generation to generation. b.) to "blog" or use the internet compentently requires the ability to do so, and so those who find it difficult and don't do such things are likely to be less adept.

Finally, to the statement by Ian, that "It has long been proposed that any PHD. student with even a non-networked computer could max out any I.Q. test ever written, and I see no reason why this should not be so."
Firstly, where was thise proposed? I.Q. tests are suppose to be independant of education - but obviously it reality, it's highly difficult (if not impossible) to do so. Yet, most "advanced" IQ tests that attempt to test innate conceptual ability reveal that the average I.Q. of physicians is around 120. To be able to answer "all questions" is ridiculous. Further, IQ is a fairly ignorant and misunderstood term as it is applied. All it means is mental quotient (a ratio of the mental age to the actual age). Meaning, if one is 20 years old and has a mental age of 30, their IQ is 150... as it is clearly evident from this, what does it mean when you are 60, you have a mental age of 90 (what does that even mean?) So basically IQ tests are just like the SATs attempting to be devoid of learned subjects such as algebra. But most, if not all, IQ tests test for mathematical and conceptual ability that can be learned. The best IQ tests (ones that test for IQs over 200 - though this is a general term), few can answer the questions. There is actually a group of those with over a 250 IQ, and one of them created a test online, and anyone who can answer it and turn it in to him (through e-mail) will be included. Of thousands who have tried, only 6 have been included in this sigma sigma sigma club.

I think I went off topic, but it was odd that IQs were even brought up... as though an average higher IQ might benefit humanity in general through creativity - it does not help much in terms of reproduction during childbearing years.

Writing and reading helped people use parts of their brains better around 3,000 years ago... but changes in technology (though the effects have yet to be tested) don't really seem to change the way people think. And further, don't have any signs of changing the way selective evolution would change the way people would think, or overall cognitive ability.

By Blogger Plato, at 17/5/06 20:20  

Rational thinking is not only shaped but dictated radically by technology. It was seeded by the emergence of organized civilizations, tribal man was immersed in a 'soundscape' that drowned the internal monologue in noise, in other words they were in a somnabulatory "condition." As such they were permanently hallucinating alternate realities (the "spritual" or "sacred" spaces that rituals and monuments were dedicated to). Print culture's emergence allowed us to think rationally, modern technology allows us the re-think irrationally. think about that

By Blogger Jacob Thibeault, at 26/3/07 05:57  

hmm, eh not too interested in being smart anymore. just give me god, good food, hot sex, and a day off.

By Blogger rob, at 25/2/08 14:07  

Hmm, The explosion in technology is indeed undeniable. I think the problem that you are suggesting which is that the human mind will not be able to keep up is a bit silly though. Technology does change but at this point its just computers getting faster and cell phones getting smaller. All of these things become easier to use, not more complicated. If you want to discuss a mind blowing change in society due to technology with a person that has actually experienced it. I think you should visit a local nursing home. Anyone in there over 80 will explain if you ask. They can remember when people where still in horse and buggies and when electricity was a luxury. Do you honestly think what we will witness will ever be able to compete with that generation?

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By Blogger Adi, at 30/11/09 00:10  

I'm not sure how I ran across this post but I'm glad I did! I've been pondering the limits of human intelligence for quite some time. There have been some great thoughts presented here and I may be late to the game on posting to this topic but here is my take... I believe that there is a limit to human intelligence. I think that we have A LOT of space left on our "hard drives" and plenty of computing power left on our "CPU's" but, eventually, the space will reach capacity. Who knows what we will learn and accomplish (if extinction doesn't get us) before we hit the limit... it would be cool to be around to find out though.

My analogy is this: a turtle, for instance (at least as we know them), cannot be taught to build a... oh, I don't know... a Ferris Wheel let's say. It's A) physically impossible and B) there is no need for them to have a Ferris Wheel.

I think that's what it boils down to... is it possible (for humans) and is there a need (for humans). We will continue to evolve (again, unless extinction gets us first) until there is no need to evolve.

On second thought, I have seen a bear ride a bike, a squirrel water ski, a dog ride a skateboard and a chicken that plays tic tac toe.... ah, so much for my theory.

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By Anonymous Anonymous, at 28/9/10 00:23  

Like all organisms on the planet, humans have selective pressures to thank for a great deal of their biology. Need to rip meat off of bones? Genes for strong teeth play a role. But when food becomes cooked and mushy? Those strong teeth are not needed, and eating habits eventually cause changes in jaw shape. China tours | China travels | China Trip
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